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Week of 2.15.08

Freelancers Up Close

NOW interviewed two freelancers about how they view the advantages and drawbacks of their work life.

Stephen Acetta is a software developer who recently was offered a full-time position after working as an independent contractor at the same company for three years.

Olga Gardner is a freelance editor who works with major publishing companies. In her free time she runs a small press called ENC Press. Both live in New York City and belong to the Freelancers Union.

NOW: What are the advantages of working as a freelancer?

Stephen Acetta Stephen Acetta: I really like the freedom of making my own hours. People who do freelance and are prepared to do it do it very well. It's a very solitary, fend-for-yourself lifestyle. On the other hand every success is your own. You have to really, really pay attention to everything you do. It's more a lifestyle than a situation.

Olga Gardner Olga Gardner: I get to make my own hours because I'm fanatical about time management. Whenever I tried to work in-house I couldn't stand it because I felt the supervisors were wasting my time. You just can't get anything done. With my own time management I get things done.

I start late in the day because that's how my body clock works. I sleep late. I get things done by the deadline. While I'm at it I can multitask and do a bunch of other things. I take a break when I feel like a break. It doesn't matter because things will still get done. So I find that to be a huge advantage to working full-time with somebody supervising.

Also, I get time to do my own thing which is publishing small-time authors who don't make it to the big houses. These are very quirky weird off-the-wall novels that would never meet the publisher requirements. I started my own press almost five years ago and I published 17 books almost single-handedly.

NOW: Do you have a contract that defines your scope of work and how long they're going to keep you?

SA: My original contract was three months. And for the past three years I've been working off that. A lot of the [technology] placement companies expect you to get hired after 3-6 months or move on. This company kept me on as a consultant and I didn't care because I got benefits through the Freelancers Union. Last week they offered me full-time employment.

OG: That's the job insecurity. There is no contract. You just get what you get. Sometimes in a slow month you get no work. And sometimes you get a very busy month where you're working 13 days straight. I'd much rather do that than have five days a week on, two days off, five days a week on, two days off. This is much more fun for me.

NOW: What are the primary drawbacks of being a freelancer?

SA: First of all, I would say benefits. If you live outside New York City I don't know if you can join the Freelancers Union. The lack of vacation and sick time really sucks. You tend not to take any off because you don't think you can afford it. Because when you are on contract they can terminate you at any time. I've only left work for sickness once in the past three years and that's because I had to go to the hospital.

Also, full-time employees can always work from home but to some people you're an outsider when you're on contract so you can't do this.

OG: Well, you don't see other people. You don't interact much. The other side of that is sometimes [at a permanent job] you work with people you can't stand. I only see people I like. I think that's a huge advantage.

There are the slow months. And there's no job security —but in my view there's no job security anywhere anymore. So sometimes I don't have any work for a few weeks and then I get to catch up on my own stuff and read something I want to read. If two or three weeks go by without work I send out a mass e-mail to editors I've worked with letting them know that I'm available. I used to feel desperate when those slow periods descended but now I feel more comfortable. I just have to give people a heads up that I'm available and something turns up. It doesn't seem so scary anymore.

I know that a lot of people can't live with this kind of financial insecurity. They need to know that they have a paycheck coming every week. It's a matter of temperament, really. I'm not the sort of person who is looking forward to ever retiring. I think I will work 'til the day I die.

NOW: Why do you suppose they don't actually just put you on staff?

SA: Because of politics and because of a reorganization. There were two or three reorgs in the last two years. They worked on getting it right without firing a lot of people in the process.

Paying me an hourly fee cost less than paying benefits and everything. To leave things alone was just easier. Also, they only get a certain number of slots for full-time employees. A lot of companies have varying levels of need for staff.

OG: They have offered me a position. I turned it down. It's just too stressful to be there. Even when I can start at noon. I want to be home with my huge monitor in my own huge chair with all my books and toys and cats. If I want to exercise in the middle of the day I'll go exercise.

NOW: Are you aware that about 30% of the American workforce is made up of freelancers? Are you surprised by that number?

SA: It only surprises me that it's so low.

OG: I'm happy to hear that. I'm all for it. I'm all for people working on their own terms.

NOW: Is there anything you would like the Freelancers Union to do for its members that it isn't already doing?

SA: Maybe advocate for other states to join so that other freelancers can benefit.

OG: No I think they are doing a fantastic job and getting stronger. They send out invitations for finance responsibility seminars which people like me should attend but don't.

NOW: How do you think being a freelancer might influence your political perspective? Are there any political issues you'd like politicians to address that relate to your position as a freelancer?

SA: I would definitely say that the financial situation with the economy. When you are an employee you can get raises every year, but when you're a contractor it's hard to increase your rate, say, when the dollar loses value.

OG: I personally don't but I think freelancing allows me to be better informed. I think my only strong feeling that may be associated with my being a freelancer is that I would like more old-fashioned small businesses not to be trampled by big ones. Maybe as a person who makes my own work and own hours I relate more to small businesses. When I have a choice I go to small local coffeehouse rather than to Starbucks. Us little guys have to stick together.